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The Jessup wholesale markets feel otherworldly at five in the morning. It’s springtime, but we’re bundled in winter coats and hats within the acres of cool storage rooms. Crates of produce are stacked to the ceiling, and we have to watch out for forklifts bearing pallet-loads of cartons that obscure the drivers’ views as they careen to and from waiting trucks.
It’s an academy of fresh food, where you can learn such details as one produce vendor’s view of the most dramatic change in the past decade (bagged salad greens), how to determine if salmon is fresh (it smells like cucumber), and how to differentiate between a wild and farm-raised rockfish (the stripes on the farmed fish are jagged).
Labels on boxes tell of far-flung locales: grapes from Chile, prickly pears from Mexico, the mid-section of a tuna from Costa Rica. I taste a grassy-flavored sprig of amaranth, a tiny, dark pink leaf I’ve never seen before, but which later turns up sprinkled on an appetizer.
Michel Tersiguel, the chef at the eponymous Ellicott City restaurant opened by his French immigrant parents in 1976, is a passionate tour guide. His “Day with the Chef,” offered as a $400 behind-the-scenes look at the real world of restaurants, begins before sunrise with food shopping, continues with a day of kitchen work, and ends with a seven-course tasting menu for two at Tersiguel’s.
In truth, the premise initially reminds me of farm vacations I’d read about, where city-slickers pay for the privilege of mucking stalls and weeding gardens as farmers chuckle to themselves on the way to the bank. I’ve worked in restaurants before, but usually for money, and I have zero illusions about the life of a chef. Besides, getting up at 4 a.m. to poke around walk-in refrigerators isn’t necessarily my idea of fun.
But Michel’s enthusiasm is infectious, and 16 hours later, stuffed and drowsy, I feel a sense of accomplishment. After all, I’ve not only chosen the sea scallops at the fish market, I’ve sorted and cleaned them in the kitchen. I’ve learned how to make spaetzle, letting drippy strands of dough plop through a grater-like tool into boiling water. I’ve helped to prepare a puree of peas and mint, and I’ve sliced thick salmon filets into a sheet that can be rolled to stand vertically on a plate. In short, I’ve had a blast.
The Day with the Chef concept was born when Michel decided to take a group of 30 women in a cooking class he was teaching to the market. He hired a bus and asked them to arrive early in the morning.
“They all showed up dressed as if they were coming to dinner at the restaurant on a Saturday night,” he recalls. “They were all in high heels.” By the end of the long morning, most everyone had wet shoes and sore feet. “But they loved it,” he adds.
Since then, he’s escorted groups to the market, followed by breakfast at the restaurant; donated tours to charitable organizations as silent-auction items; and hosted about 10 one-on-one Days with the Chef each year. Guests range from passionate home cooks to those who’ve never worked in a kitchen. A police offer, an engineer, an economist from the United Nations. A guy who wanted to remodel his kitchen, a woman interested in catering. These days, Michel tells everyone to dress warmly—and to wear comfortable shoes.
Maribeth Tulenko’s husband, Sean, gave her a Day with the Chef as a gift two years ago. Tulenko came away with renewed respect for Tersiguel’s profession. “I was amazed to watch him making up the day’s menu in his head as we walked through the market,” she says.